You know…your Grandma’s/Aunty’s/Uncle’s Compound where the ‘Ohana lives

November 03, 2014
Can you spot an ‘ohana dwelling?

Can you spot an ‘ohana dwelling?

By: Questor Lau


“Tutu the Outlaw”

Most people are familiar with ‘Ohana Dwellings – that studio in back of grandma’s house either used by extended family or rented for income. But according to Honolulu’s zoning code, these living arrangements are often illegal, making grandma an outlaw.

The department of planning and permitting actually tracks permits for spaces they deem suspicious for being easily converted into an illegal rental unit. In Honolulu, a building permit can be issued for Rec Rooms that are often converted into an illegal accessory dwelling unit (iADU). It can contain a kitchenette, bathroom and studio-like space – but it cannot be labeled a “studio” or “dwelling” on the permit.

In Honolulu from 2005 to 2012, a low of 30% up to 46% of all building permits for one and two-family dwellings contained a “suspicious space.” The highest rate occurred in 2008, during the Great Recession. During that same time, ‘Ohana dwelling units composed only 1% of all residential permits.

This suggests that zoning and infrastructure capacity are not keeping up with the community’s needs. I believe that illegal Accessory Dwelling Units (iADUs) are a sign of urban resilience – a way Honolulu homeowners survive Honolulu’s high costs of living. But it’s not just about money. iADUs also fit our cultural values such as an acceptance for multigenerational living.

As compared to the nation, Hawai‘i has the highest proportion of multigenerational households: 11.1% vs 5.6% nationally.[2] And while foreign-born householders compose nearly 30% of multigenerational homes, a person who is Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander is 3.3 times more likely to live in a multigenerational household.[3]

Future population projections for Hawai‘i point to a higher percentage of the population over 65 and under 18 years old. As more households contain people who are not working, should policymakers be preparing for the day when more homeowners rent out that studio in back for extra income?


Comparison of total Residential Dwellings Units Created (2005-2012): Single-Family, Two-Family Dwelling, Illegal Accessory Dwellings and ‘Ohana Units (Apartment units, hotels, farm dwellings, not included). Data from the Honolulu Dept of Planning and Permitting.

Is Honolulu at a tipping point? When building permit data is translated into a map, it allows people to understand their neighborhood on another level. For example, based on building permit data from 2005 to 2012, where are these suspicious building permits located? (see map below)

While policymakers continue to grapple with the politics of densifying residential neighborhoods, homeowners continue to build multigenerational homes and suspicious accessory spaces to accommodate flexible living arrangements and earn extra income.

Even with Hawai‘i’s high cost of living, real estate prices and rates of homelessness, I remain at heart, an optimist. These challenges are our greatest asset. The good news is that it’s not a lack of resources or insurmountable barrier that is stopping us. The problem is our choice of words; finding the right policies to incentivize housing and vibrant neighborhoods.

For example, ‘Ohana dwellings must meet the following requirements before a permit can be issued:

  • Neighborhood must have adequate road, water, sewer infrastructure;
  • Lot area must meet minimum size for underlying zone;
  • Must provide 2 additional stall parking
  • Structure must be attached to the main house; and
  • $5,878 sewer connection fee.

Permits for Rec Rooms, iADUs or similarly suspicious spaces:

  • Require none of the above
  • Can be legally permitted with a kitchenette: (any 2 of the 3) sink, cooking appliance, refrigeratorhonolulu-housing-unit-production-2005-2012

Compared to other types of housing, ‘Ohana Dwellings are not a popular option. Based on the number of permits issued, current zoning rules appear to incentivize illegal accessory dwelling units.
Graphic below shows how the distribution of multigenerational households does not coincide with areas the City allows Ohana Dwellings. Multigenerational families are concentrated in ‘Ewa Beach, Waipahu, Kalihi and Waimānalo (brown circles) yet the City does not allow ‘Ohana Dwellings in these areas. Do you think that’s stopped anyone from building a Rec Room?spatial-relationships-of-multigenerational-households

[1] The US Census defines “multigenerational household” as households of 3 or more generations.

[2]  California (8.2%) was the state with the next highest percent of multigenerational households.



Questor Lau is a planner who brings to HHF architectural experience navigating the building regulatory process in Honolulu, with a focus on urban infill projects. He has supported community initiatives such as Aging-in-Place by helping to research and identify regulatory barriers to multigenerational living. For this research, he received an Award of Distinction from the University of Hawai‘i School of Architecture and was recognized by the Hawai‘i Architectural Foundation.

Check out Questor’s doctoral thesis on ‘ohana dwellings:

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Regarding ‘ohana dwellings:

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